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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Arsenic and Old Lace
Strand Theatre Spring 2003

Joseph Kesselring's whimsically black comedy was a smash hit in 1941 and has been a staple of amateur and school theatricals ever since. Its combination of screwball farce and macabre humour may be a bit dated - the whimsy, in particular, gets very, very thick at moments - but a director sensitive to its delicate balance should still be able to bring out much of its fun. But I fear that such a director is exactly what we do not have in Matthew Francis, who has made a shapeless, rhythmless, whimsyless and almost laughless lump out of this current revival.

Kesselring's hero, an innocent theatre critic (a few irrelevant jokes there), discovers that his sweet old maiden aunts have been systematically murdering lonely old men as part of their charitable work, while his harmlessly insane brother, who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, buries them in the Panama Canal he's building in the basement. Add into the mix another brother who's an escaped criminal whose plastic surgery has left him looking like Boris Karloff and you should have enough absurdity for frantic farce and bizarre moral illogic.

But where to begin with what went wrong? We can start with Stephen Tompkinson's phlegmatic job as the critic, never working up any sense of panic or comic desperation. Many people will know the play best from the 1944 film in which Cary Grant gave an excessively manic performance. Evidently agreeing that was way over the top, director Francis has pushed Tompkinson far too far in the opposite direction, so that he brings nothing to the play, leaving a dead lump where there should be the comic focus. Meanwhile, the actor has been unable to integrate the various behaviours demanded by the script  - stuffiness, awkwardness with girls, panic, inventiveness, and so on - into any sort of coherent character, so he just changes illogically from minute to minute.

But almost every other characterisation is equally dreary and undeveloped. Rupert VanSittart  never looks, acts or sounds a bit like Teddy Roosevelt, so one of the play's running gags is all but lost. (Note to British readers: though President Roosevelt flourished a full century ago, he remains a familiar folk figure, as easy to imitate and parody as, say, Winston Churchill.) There's really no excuse for getting him wrong, unless in some odd way Matthew Francis thought it would be funny to have a man who didn't look, act or sound a bit like TR think he was TR.

Actually I may be close to the truth there, since Francis and actor Michael Richards seem to have decided that there was a joke in having a man who doesn't look, act, or sound anything like Boris Karloff constantly being told he looks just like Boris Karloff. Certainly the guy who did Richards' makeup has never seen a picture of Karloff, and in a cast of British actors working valiantly at American accents, the one American affects a weird noplace accent that is neither funny nor believable.

(By the way, the whole Karloff joke is built on the fact that Karloff himself played the role in the original Broadway production, and I have always felt it should be rewritten for revivals - 'Hey, you look just like that guy from Seinfeld' would work just as well.)

The only cast members to salvage any dignity are Thelma Barlow and Marcia Warren as the dotty aunts who simply cannot see anything wrong with their charitable activities. Both actresses are known and loved by British audiences, both have been doing dotty old dears for a long time, and both just rely on their standard shtick and lovability to carry them through, essentially ignoring the rest of the play around them.

When everyone in a play is poor in exactly the same ways, when the rhythms and jokes are all mangled, when the necessary tone of absurd whimsy is only intermittently captured, when - yes - some laughs do manage inevitably to sneak through, but far too few, then 90% of the blame must be laid at the feet of the director. There is evidence in his past that Matthew Francis can be an effective director, so the kindest conclusion to reach is that he was just very much the wrong man for this play.

In any case, there is really no reason for anyone to rush to see this revival. It is bound to be done sooner or later by your children's school or your local AmDram club, and I can't imagine that version being significantly worse.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Arsenic and Old Lace - Strand 2003